Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham's comedy speaks for itself

| Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham traffics in the kind of politically incorrect utterances that recently landed a certain senator from Nevada in hot water.

But nobody calls Dunham on it. Because it's his "suitcase posse" of dummies who say them. Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a pop-eyed skeleton in al-Qaida drag, slams Jews. Sweet Daddy Dee, a black pimp puppet, is full of blaxploitation cliches. Jose Jalapeno, a pepper on a stick, chatters away in a thick Speedy Gonzales accent.

"There's some sort of unwritten license that allows an inanimate object that becomes animate to get away with stuff that a mere mortal never could," Dunham says. "Look at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog."

The Texas-born comedian brings his wooden entourage, led by the crabby old man Walter, to the Mellon Arena on Saturday.

He's arguably the most famous ventriloquist in the world. That may be a bit like claiming to be the No. 1 Navajo skydiving chess player, but he and ventriloquist Terry Fator have rescued ventriloquism from its purgatory of state fairs and children's birthday parties. Fator had his own Susan Boyle moment on the 2007 season of "America's Got Talent" when he won the $1 million prize by having his dummies impersonate famous singers.

But those who continue to dismiss ventriloquism as a novelty act overlook the talent behind the illusion. It's not enough to talk without moving your lips. If Dunham wasn't a creative and resourceful comedian, his dummies would have nothing to say.

He's proud of the fact that his show offers up empty calories. His only ambition is to make people laugh.

"My show has no socially redeeming value whatsoever," he says. "You're not going to learn anything. All you're going to do is have a big goofy time and escape your problems for a while."

In June, Forbes Magazine listed Dunham among the top 100 top-earning celebrities. His act is a natural on YouTube, where he has attracted more than 350 million hits. He's sold more than 4 million copies of his DVDs, "Arguing With Myself," "Spark of Insanity" and "A Very Special Christmas Special." He made a guest appearance on too-hip-for-the-room "30 Rock" on NBC.

He fared less well on Comedy Central, who announced in December that they would not be renewing "The Jeff Dunham Show" for a second season. But Comedy Central brass say they'll pursue other projects with Dunham.

Dunham performed 119 shows last year. That meant a lot of passes through airport security, where he was sometimes asked to explain the wooden stowaways in his luggage.

"They thought Walter's head in my carry-on was a banjo and stopped me," he says. "When I told them it was a head they let me go."

Additional Information:

Jeff Dunham

Where: Mellon Arena, Uptown

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $46.75

Details: 412-642-1800 or Web site

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